How to Know Your Story Is Actually Finished

This post isn’t for the goal-oriented writer with an outline and a plan. Instead, it’s for the writer who’s never quite sure if something is “good enough” for publication, for the writer who gets stuck in the editing cycle of the literary washing machine and can’t find his or her way out. Are you that writer?

Almost every other kind of art or endeavor has a set start and finish, so when you’ve decided to become a writer, and start a story (or poem, or any other kind of written work), life hasn’t really prepared you for what the writing finish line looks like. As a result, it’s really easy to cross that line at full speed and just keep going. In fact, you can ruin a perfectly good piece of writing by bounding past the finish line and crashing into innocent bystanders. Metaphorically speaking.

Adhere to Story Structure

Whether the uninhibited free spirit in you likes it or not, 99.99% of readers come to a story with a set of expectations about how a story should flow, how it should open, rise up and challenge them, and most of all, how the story should reward their efforts and attention at the end. Don’t disappoint your readers’ expectations by  messing with the basic undergirding of a story. It might sound like a lovely, subversive idea to write a story without an ending (hey, The Sopranos did it), but all you’re really writing is a scene. Don’t stop there.

base jumpers
Photo: Roo Reynolds, flickr.com

Different schools of thought diverge on the details, but basic story structure looks like this.

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. The quest
  4. Surprise
  5. Critical choice
  6. Climax
  7. Reversal
  8. Resolution

Hey, if you don’t believe me, listen to the real experts! For more on story structure and why you need it, check out author and Helping Writers Become Authors blogger K.M. Weiland‘s treatment of the subject, in a guest post for The Write Practice.

Not sure if you’ve barreled past the ending and are overwriting your story? Try reverse-outlining what you have to far, and pinning it to the story structure listed above. Have you resolved your story yet? Are you still writing because something in you doesn’t feel like what you’ve written is enough of a resolution? (I’ve done that.) Check out the preceding parts of your outline and make sure they’re hitting all the right notes on story structure. If they are, stop at the end. 

Build Up Your Confidence

Easier said than done, right? I’ll build up my confidence, you may think, when I’ve published my first book/won my first contest/been published in the Kenyon Review.

No. Stop that right now. Waiting to reward yourself with confidence, or refusing to think you’re good enough until the rest of the world has already acknowledged your talent, is the quickest path to obscurity that I can think of. And it’s one reason a lot of manuscripts sit in drawers, a lot of literary essays sit mostly finished (guilty!) on computer desktops, and short stories go into the trash bin never having seen the light of day in the pages of a journal or on someone’s bookshelf. We write, and write, and rewrite, and write some more, and because we haven’t reached that satisfactory level of “good enough,” the work won’t ever be done.

Instead, try thinking, just for a moment, that you are in the midst of working on the writing that the world desperately needs. There are people out there hoping to read a story just like yours, someday. Why would you disappoint them by constantly spit-polishing the thing until the shine has completely rubbed away? Now keep thinking it, because it’s true!

Write “THE END,” on your story, and declare it officially finished. (Then you get to edit, proofread, and query your story all over the place. And that’s when the real fun begins.)